Doing Mr. Brunell's Homework For Him

By Bill Moore

Posted: 09 Dec 2010

"Electric cars are the new wave in automobile technology. Many see them as the way to cut greenhouse gas emissions because they plug in rather than fuel up," writes Don Brunell, the president of the Association of Washington Business, in a recent opinion piece that's been making the rounds of the wire services.

Entitled "The pros and cons of electric cars," the article is mostly about the "cons." After highlighting some of the activities going on his Pacific Northwest region, he then states, "But there's a problem."

"Electric cars use electricity – lots of it. In fact, the Edison Electric Institute estimates that driving 10,000 miles in an electric car will use about 2,500 kilowatt-hours, 20 percent more than the average home uses in a year. So, while electric cars reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they increase the need for electricity."

Then, in true Chamber of Commerce fashion, he blames "activists who promote electric cars are working to constrict the generation of electricity." Damned treehuggers and liberals!

"Instead, the activists want electricity produced only by renewable energy. But there's another problem."

What another one? Yep. People don't want wind farms "blocking their panoramic views." Then, he points out, there are contradictory policy measures that limit the definition of what is "biomass" and calls hydropower non-renewable energy.

Now, I can't say I am conversant with the measure in question (I-937) as to why pulping liquors are excluded from being labeled "renewable biomass," though I'd hazard a guess the matter is very complex and largely has to do with enabling more clear cutting and water pollution. Hydroelectricity, on the other hand, has long been a contentious issue when attempts are made to call it "renewable." Certainly, it is "renewable" as long as there is snow melt and ample moisture in the drainage basin feeding the local river system, something long-term climate change is starting to impact globally.

Finally, Mr. Brunell sees another hang-up: taxes.

"Currently, taxes on gasoline and diesel pay to build and maintain roads and streets. Electric car owners pay nothing. As cars have become more fuel efficient, gas tax revenues have fallen; electric cars will worsen that revenue shortfall."

So, we have electric cars demanding electricity and drivers of said vehicles not paying their fair share of taxes.

Okay, lets take these one at a time, shall we?

(1) Yes, electric cars do use electricity and his 2.5MW annually per car is a reasonable number. Presumably, the concern here has to do with the available amount of electric power in his region, and his native Washington state, specifically.

After Vermont, Washington state has one of the lowest carbon footprints in the U.S. in terms of its electric power mix. Seventy percent of the electricity generated in the state comes from hydropower dams. The state also uses some coal, nuclear, and natural gas. The amount of "new" renewables -- wind power mainly -- is less than 2%. The state wants to ramp this up to at least 16%. And while the Washington's utilities do buy additional power from time to time on the regional spot market to handle unexpected peak loads -- usually during summer daytime hours -- annually, the state produces 24% more electric power than it consumes, according to the state's Department of Commerce.

Washington state's Department of Ecology examined the impact that electrifying the state's transportation system would have on the region's power grid in a study done on behalf of Electrify Transportation in Washington Group. In an online FAQ, they ask, "What will be the impacts on the power grid of charging a substantial fleet of PHEVs?" The response notes the following:

"A study by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory to be released in January 2007 finds that there is sufficient idle electrical capacity today in the PNW grid to power 20% of the regions current vehicles in a 24 hour window with base and intermediate generation."

Further, they observe that Seattle City Light did its own evaluation and found that electric hybrids (PHEVs)...

...have potential benefits for the utility in terms of better use of its distribution infrastructure and as a potential source of greenhouse gas offsets, for the region in terms of reduced pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and for the consumer in terms of lower per-mile costs. Furthermore, the impact on customer rates, whether positive or negative, is likely to be very small."

Finally, the document refers to a 2006 National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) that found...

...large-scale deployment of PHEVs will have limited, if any, negative impacts on the electric power system in terms of additional generation requirements. As demonstrated by utility system load duration curves, current electric power systems have large amounts of underutilized capacity. This excess capacity could potentially provide electricity to PHEVs provided the utilities have some control over when charging occurs."

As the Department of Ecology page points out, at present, the regional power grid produces some 2,400 megawatts of electric power in excess of average annual demand. Half that power could be used to recharge 2 million electric hybrids with an average EV-mode range of 60 miles.

(2) Now on the question of electric car owners paying their fair share of road taxes, there are any number of ways to handle this. The simplest way would be to simply assess every electric car an annual road-use fee when their owners renew their license and pay their property tax on the vehicle.

Another approach is to have the utilities collect the tax on the electricity used to charge the vehicle, just as they do on the electricity they sell the consumer to run their home or business. While utilities are loath to become tax collectors, smart meters and separate TOU meters should be able to differentiate between which electrons powered the home and which ones found their way into the car's battery pack.

Of Mr. Brunell's concerns, taxing the vehicles for their fair share of road use, should be the least of his concerns. Governments, like nature, will find a way, to paraphrase that famous line from Jurassic Park.


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